A “Brief” History of the Kathmandu Valley

Before I left for Kathmandu, I did some reading about the area. There’s a lot of weird and interesting history in the Kathmandu Valley, but I was most surprised to read that what we know as “Kathmandu” is actually three distinct cities, each with their own history and culture. I promised I’d get into this history, so here we go.

These cities are Bhaktapur, Lalitpur, and Kathmandu. I actually live in Patan, which is the old city in Lalitpur. The history of the area has been hard for me to wrap my head around because it’s the history of distinct cultures happening simultaneously. So here’s the quick stuff, from ancient myths to modern Nepal.


Nagdaha Lake

In the ancient stories of the Kathmandu Valley, there was once a massive lake where Kathmandu is now. It was called “Nagdaha” because it was filled with snakes. Swayambhu Purana, a Buddhist scripture, says that Manjushri came to the lake during a pilgrimage from China. He saw a lotus flower blooming in the center, so he took his flaming sword (because why not) and cut a gorge in the mountains, draining the lake. The lotus flower eventually settled on the site that is now Swayambhunath, a massive stupa in the western part of Kathmandu. Manjushri, who was a bodhisattva, established the city of Manjupattan in the new valley. A bodhisattva is, as I understand it, one who achieved Nirvana (which is basically the ultimate spiritual goal of Buddhism), but delayed it for the benefit of all those living beings who have not yet done so and continue to suffer. Essentially, Manjushri is a Buddhist saint.

Manjupattan prospered for a little while, until a demon named Banasur came along and closed the gorge cut by Manjushri, flooding the valley once again. Krishna, a major Hindu deity, came to the new lake, killed Banasur, and drained it once again, leaving the valley we know today.

Now what’s interesting about this creation story is that archaeological and fossil records hold that there really was a lake here — the Paleo Kathmandu Lake. Fossils show ancient mammoths, crocodiles, and hippos in the Kathmandu Valley. Pollen-dating of the sediment shows evidence of a heavily forested shoreline. The Paleo Kathmandu Lake may have been as deep as 200 meters (~660 feet). About 30,000 years ago, erosion eventually wore away enough that the lake began to drain, eventually reducing to the Bagmati river that separates modern-day Kathmandu and Lalitpur. Within a few thousand years, civilizations began to appear. Thimi rose about 25,000 years ago. Patan, where I live, showed up some 18,000 years ago.

So to recap this bit, an ancient Buddhist myth holds that a saint drained the lake from Kathmandu Valley. It was flooded, then drained again. Archaeological records show there really was a lake, which drained due to erosion roughly 30,000 years ago. The first civilization appeared 25,000 years ago, and the Kathmandu Valley has been continuously inhabited ever since.



The Shiva Purana, a major Hindu text, claims that there was a city in the valley called Nayapala. It’s possible this is the origin of the name Nepal. However, beyond the Shiva Purana, very few records exist prior to the Licchvais dynasty.

Here’s what is known — the Licchvais came from the Indo-Gangentic plain, a historical area covering eastern Pakistan, northern India, and Bangladesh. When the Licchvais arrived in Nepal in 400 AD, they defeated the Kirata, who were the civilization immediately predating the Licchvais. It was during the Licchvais dynasty that Kathmandu was founded, in 723 AD. Kathmandu quickly became an important city along the trade routes between India and Tibet. The trade route also created a lot of cultural exchange, and the Newar people (indigenous to the valley and still live here) became known as great artists and architects.

After the Licchvais came the Malla, who first came as refugees from northern India. The two cultures sort of melded together over some years, and eventually the Malla just absorbed the Licchvais. At first, Kathmandu experienced a lot of decline under Malla rule. They were constantly raided and attacked by Khas (who are native to Nepal) and Turk (from central Asia) Muslims. Almost a third of the city was killed in an earthquake, including the king. But Kathmandu bounced back, and eventually dominated trade between India and Tibet during the Malla era. It’s during this time we first see records of four fortified cities, the capitals of the Malla federation — Kantipur, Kirtipur, Lalitpur, and Bhaktapur (any of these sound familiar?).



Bhaktapur means “The City of Devotees” in Sanskrit. Today, Bhaktapur is actually pretty small. It’s a district of the Kathmandu valley, but it’s mainly a historic place. Many Licchvais records have been recovered from the area of Bhaktabur. For a long time, Bhaktapur was mostly rural and was known for bhat, or rice. But during the 12th century AD (1100-1200 AD), there was a major shift. Ananda Dev, the ruler at the time, is credited with Bhaktapur’s meteoric rise, becoming Nepal’s capital. For 300 years, Bhaktapur was the religious, cultural, and political center of the region. During this time, the city played an important role in preserving and enhancing both Hinduism and Buddhism.

In 1349 AD, the Muslim army from Bengal, India attacked and captured Bhaktapur. They destroyed much of the city’s cultural heritage. This was not the end of Bhaktapur’s reign, but it set in motion a chain of events that would eventually lead to the splitting of the city.

King Yaksha Malla ordered the fortification of Bhaktapur to ward off future invaders, and the wall around the city was completed in 1453 AD. Records indicate that people from all castes and classes banded together to build the defense. However, this apparent bolstering of national identity was not enough to survive the political instability that came as a result of Yaksha Malla’s death in 1481 AD.

Up to this point, Nepal was united in the Nepal Mandala, an ancient federation in the Kathmandu Valley and beyond. It was eventually split into three kingdoms, Kantipur, Bhaktapur, and Lalitpur. Bhaktapur regressed to a small capital of a small kingdom, and it remained so until the conquest of the Gorkhali in 1769 AD.


Patan (Lalitpur)

Lalitpur appears in records early, under several different names. It is first mentioned as Patan, and then Yala (a common Newari name), and then Lalitpur. Patan is believed to have been founded under the Kirata dynasty, before the Licchvais even arrived on the scene. It was expanded under the Licchvais, and then again under the Malla.

The exact date of Lalitpur’s founding is up for debate, but it is possible that it was around 299 AD. Sources indicate that Patan is by far the oldest of the three cities in the Kathmandu Valley by a significant margin and has been around since ancient times. Lalitpur, however, wasn’t officially founded until relatively recently. I use that term very loosely since Patan is so gotdamn ancient.

Of the three cities, the history of Yala/Patan/Lalitpur is the most mysterious. Even its year of founding is up for debate, and the range of possible dates runs from prehistory to just a thousand-odd years ago.

What is known is that, in 250 AD, the Buddhist emperor Asoka built five stupas (a few of which I photographed in Patan After Dark Pt. 1 and “You don’t know very much about Nepal, do you?”). They mark the cardinal points of the city — four in the north, south, east, and west, and one in the center. The first time I visited one of these stupas, there was a quality about it that was hard to describe. I still don’t know what exactly that quality is. But I know that the Eyes of Buddha have watched this city for nearly 2,000 years, and will continue to do so for a long time after I and everyone else have gone.


Modern-Day Kathmandu

In 1768, the Gorkha Kingdom overthrew the Malla Confederacy in the Battle of Kathmandu. The Gorkha conquest began at Kirtipur, one of the three cities of the valley. Lalitpur was annexed without a battle. Bhaktapur was further reduced to a mere district in the city. Kathmandu, which had been relatively minor up to this point, became the capital of the Gorkha Empire in Nepal. b-Map-of-Kathmandu-valley-within-the-valley-Kathmandu-Bhaktapur-and-Lalitpur-districts

The Gorkhas dominate most of Nepal’s history from that point on. Gorkha rule in Nepal was called the Shah dynasty, and it ruled the Kingdom of Nepal from the first Gorkha conquest in 1768 up until May 28th, 2008. It was a pretty wild ride for the Shahs in Nepal.

Prior to their successful conquest in 1768, the Gorkhas had teamed up with the East India Company in an effort to blockade and starve the three Newar capitals (Kathmandu, Lalitpur, and Bhaktapur) into submission. They held out, but fell to an all-out invasion in the following years.

Gorkha invaded Tibet in 1788 and held several border cities until 1791, when Kyirong and Kuti refused to pay tribute. Gorkha attempted to invade Tibet again, but were stopped by the Chinese army, which came to Tibet’s defense. The Chinese army actually pressed the offensive and came close to capturing Kathmandu, but were eventually forced back.

Later, there was an actual war — the Anglo-Nepalese War — in which Nepal was defeated in 1816. Before this time, the Gorkha Kingdom was in its golden days, occupying Kumaon (modern-day Uttarakhand) and Sikkim. Nepali is actually still the majority language in Sikkim. After the war, it was forced to give up much of the territory it had taken from India. The Nepalese-Tibetan War in 1856 ended in Nepalese victory, but only amounted to payment from Tibet and no new territory. It was just one of several wars fought between Nepal and Tibet, beginning in 1792 with the Sino-Nepalese War. It’s all been mostly inconsequential in terms of modern-day influence, but the history is there.

The modern borders of Nepal are roughly the territory of the Gorkha Kingdom. Historically, “Nepal” only referred to the Newar-inhabited Kathmandu Valley, which was called the Nepal Valley. In the 1930’s, the Gorkha government began using “Nepal” to refer to the entire kingdom, and “Kathmandu Valley” for the Nepal Valley. Today, the Gorkha district is just one of Nepal’s 75 districts and covers roughly the same area of the old kingdom. The Gorkhali language was also renamed the Nepali language in 1933. In the national anthem, the lyrics were changed in 1951 so that every “Gorkhali” became “Nepali.” It’s a bizarre moment in history and to be honest, I’m not really sure why the change happened.

Shah/Gorkha rule lasted until May, 2008 following a somewhat violent movement. First, King Birendra moved Nepal from an absolute monarchy to a constitutional monarchy in 1990. In 2001, Birendra was murdered in the royal palace along with his brother, Prince Nirajan, as well as several others. Birendra’s other brother, Gyanendra, took the throne and tried to claim absolute power once again in 2005. In 2007, Nepal’s parliament voted to abolish the monarchy and declare Nepal a Federal Democratic Republic. Gyanendra stepped down, but has been making moves to re-enter the political arena ever since, going so far as to claim he’ll once again be king.


Alright, so maybe that was a little longer than I intended. Stay tuned for more photos and slightly less words in the future, though this won’t be the last time I indulge my inner history nerd. You’ve been warned.


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